Newt Gingrich will not be Donald Trump’s running mate, but for a while he thought he could be. Last night, faced with a bloody attack in Nice, France, and the knowledge Trump would likely choose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to be his running mate, Gingrich made one last bid for the mogul’s affection.
“Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be. Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Shariah, they should be deported,” he told Fox’s Sean Hannity. “Shariah is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Shariah – glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.”
Gingrich is no stranger to religious extremism himself. Credit: Maria Mateeva.
Gingrich made the comments just days after a subcommittee of Republican delegates approved a provisional addition to the Republican Party platform asserting “that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.” The hypocrisy apparently escapes him. Shariah also doesn’t mean what Gingrich seems to think it means. His proposed “test” – how exactly would that be imposed, anyway? – is roughly equivalent to testing Christians to find out if they follow the Ten Commandments. Most American Christians do: They just don’t necessarily believe those commandments ought to be imposed by the force of law. The same is true for American Jews who follow Halakhah. As the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid noted on Twitter last night, Shariah governs many Islamic practices, including marriage and prayer rituals; banning it effectively bans Islam itself. In some countries, Shariah can and often is applied to matters of criminal and civil law, but there is no universal agreement about what that application is supposed to look like. Countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, have codified Shariah in repressive ways and rely on religious police to enforce a specific conservative tradition. In other countries, and in other Islamic traditions, Shariah is a matter of individual interpretation. Harvard Divinity School’s religious literacy guide explains further. Shariah, it says, has never been “a static set of universally applied legal declarations.” Instead: “It is always culturally and historically interpreted and ‘proper’ interpretation is itself often debated within and among Muslim communities across the globe.”
There is no evidence that American Muslims collectively wish to enforce Saudi-style Wahhabism in this country. In fact, evidence supports precisely the opposite conclusion. A 2011 Pew survey revealed that support for extremism is “negligible” among American Muslims; majorities also indicated they believe there is more than one correct interpretation of Islam and that different religious traditions can lead to eternal life. That’s sharply at odds with the sort of rigid dogmatism Gingrich likely had in mind.
His proposal amounts to a call to deport American Muslims because they are Muslim. It’s a directive to repay extremism with extremism.
Any law based on this proposal would unquestionably violate the First Amendment. But there’s more than the law at stake here. Gingrich suggested we sacrifice a key democratic principle in response to an attack on the same country that helped us secure that democracy centuries ago.
His comments made me think of my own family.
My family, like most American families, originated elsewhere – France, in our case. My ancestors were Huguenots, and they came to these shores after enduring centuries of religious persecution. They came here specifically because they believed they would finally be permitted to practice their faith in peace, and they believed this so deeply that they fought in the American Revolution.
One of them, William Lenoir, served as one of North Carolina’s first state senators. There, he refused to vote to ratify the first draft of the U.S. Constitution because it did not contain a clause guaranteeing religious freedom. When it returned to the legislature, First Amendment attached, he changed his vote.
Religious freedom drew my family here. Religious freedom kept them here. The same principle has attracted generations of immigrants ever since.
That might not be the case much longer. Newt Gingrich almost certainly made his comments as a sort of Hail Mary pass to convince Trump to put him on the ticket. But though his gambit failed, he simply echoed sentiments Trump has previously expressed, and Trump is the one running for president.
Trump says he’ll make America great again. But past claims of “greatness” usually leave some behind. The country has not always been great for people of color, for women, for LGBT people. It has been great sometimes, in individual moments, when its people forced it to live up to its original promises.
Its failures make its consistent guarantee of religious freedom that much more remarkable. That is a record we should embrace. It’s what sets us apart from extremists.